Flailing About With Gentle Giant's "Octopus": Prog Review #16

Flailing About With Gentle Giant's "Octopus": Prog Review #16

Gentle GIant's Octopus.jpg

I've had a hard time in the past with Gentle Giant. Their brand of stop-and-start syncopated staccato synth-jazz psychedelic fusion is intriguing, but unbelievably off-putting. No one could listen to their song "Proclamation" and declare that this is catchy music. Indeed, "Proclamation" was my introduction to the band, and it left me scratching my head.

Needless to say, I was wary when I first listened to Octopus.

Octopus is no less challenging than other Gentle Giant material, but the focus on melody, however broken up, keeps the songs easier to appreciate. A lot of this has to do with how Octopus compartmentalizes genres, rather than throwing them all into the mix at once, as some other Gentle Giant albums do. Much Gentle Giant loudly proclaims the band's disdain for simple songwriting formulas by showing off something incomprehensible. But Octopus only declares its irreverence through more subtle methods, mostly by first lulling listeners into something accessible before throwing in a barrage of curveballs.

For example, the first two minutes of "Raconteur, Troubadour" is a relatively simple folky romp with lively fiddle and bouncy keyboard. But a short bridge leads into a section that can be described entirely as a classical tune, with austere violins and organ. This then passes back into the fiddly jaunt after a short horn outburst. After listening to the middle instrumental section, you can hear more clearly the classical influences on the framing portions. The spacing out of the song keeps you alert to how attuned Gentle Giant is to the connections and differences between disparate genres, and how little they care for the boundaries.

It's exciting when the track ends and a heavy guitar riff begins the psychedelic "A Cry for Everyone," which is as close to an ordinary rock and roll tune as the band ever gets. It's a great way to introduce a false sense of security in preparation for the bewildering "Knots," with its staccato a capella and its tentatively arranged toy box percussion. An actual song emerges at times between atonal bursts of horn, keys, and xylophone. Even then, the progression seems purposefully designed to thwart the emergence of music the moment it appears. An experiment on the level of Genesis's "The Waiting Room" or Pink Floyd's "On the Run," perhaps?

This low point may be the perfect encapsulation of what Gentle Giant stands for generally, but only if we want to be ungenerous and dismissive. "The Boys in the Band" takes the similar concept of rapid breakdowns in sound that signal tone and style shifts to new heights. This is a more classically progressive song in the vein of Yes's "Heart of the Sunrise" that employs concerto-like showcases of different instruments that offer variations of the melody. The main riff and the spacey synths make this instrumental track a delight.

"Dog's Life" once again plays with expectations and genre; it's a retro-60s pop tune with plaintive violin, harpsichord, and acoustic guitar plucking. It reminds me of The Beatles at their most classical - along the lines of "Eleanor Rigby" or "She's Leaving Home." Gentle Giant keeps up the theme of "hard to listen to" by using a lot of sharps and maybe even pitch shifting.

Once again, the album veers in a completely new direction with "Think of Me With Kindness," a beautifully performed, harmonious song with drums and horn that lend just the right buoyant effect to the lovely keyboard and vocals.

I could describe in detail the two remaining tracks - the theatrical folk-rocky opener "Advent of Panurge" and the darkly atmospheric "River" - but the effect is the same. Each song doesn't quite participate in a single genre or maintain a consistent tone, and song to song, Octopus reveals a band more interested in pushing boundaries than in presenting pleasant, entertaining music. That is more or less the band's mission, and while it has gained them a lot of respect in prog circles, it has made it impossible for them to find any sort of following beyond.

So much for the sound. No wonder Gentle Giant called this album Octopus. It's very appropriate when you realize there are 8 tracks, each moving in independent musical directions from each other. None is straightforward, instead curving and undulating unevenly from genre to genre, with time changes and rapid alternations between lead instruments. The more you listen to this album and give it some thought, the more and more it lives up to its slippery, camouflagic, alien, intelligent namesake.

One would surely need the grip of an octopus to wrap their mind around every twist and turn on this album. Gentle GIant is a notoriously difficult band, and THIS is generally regarded their most accessible album. I for one love it, but it bore far more listens than any other album in the list for me to feel like I really knew it; I'm not sure I do now.

If you want to justify someone's fear or distaste for the overly complex, intellectual, and alienating qualities of progressive music, look no further than Gentle Giant's Octopus; but if they can get some joy out of it, the battle is forever won.

Rolling Stone Rankings                       

  1. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  2. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  3. Rush - Moving Pictures

  4. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here

  5. Yes – Close to the Edge

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. Can - Future Days

  9. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  10. Yes - Fragile

  11. Rush - Hemispheres

  12. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  13. Pink Floyd - Animals

  14. Genesis - Foxtrot

  15. King Crimson - Red

  16. Gentle Giant - Octopus

ASK Rankings

  1. Genesis - The Lamb Lies Down on Broadway

  2. Genesis - Foxtrot

  3. Yes – Close to the Edge

  4. King Crimson - Red

  5. Gentle Giant - Octopus

  6. Genesis - Selling England by the Pound

  7. Jethro Tull - Thick as a Brick

  8. ELP - Brain Salad Surgery

  9. Rush - Moving Pictures

  10. King Crimson - In the Court of the Crimson King

  11. Pink Floyd - Animals

  12. Yes - Fragile

  13. Rush - Hemispheres

  14. Pink Floyd - Dark Side of the Moon

  15. Can - Future Days

  16. Pink Floyd - Wish You Were Here


Stop for King Crimson's "Red": Prog Review #15

Stop for King Crimson's "Red": Prog Review #15